Shokugeki no Soma: An Overanalysis

It’s been a hot minute since I wrote anything here. When I was last here (over a month ago 0.0) I think I was making an impassioned progressive/feminist argument about anime. Hopefully you guys thought it was smart and interesting enough to read, and if so, that means you let me be smart at you and that’s pretty cool of you. You rock.

Last time, I wrote a lot about Kill la Kill, which a lot of people have already done, but that’s okay, because it’s awesome and I love it and… it’s awesome.

personal space

Watch it, BlueHair McShinyNipples

One of the things that I love most about Kill la Kill is how it takes a situation that is fundamentally absurd and blends in aspects of the mundane so beautifully. It can go from a character heavy, perfectly average scene by the side of the road, to a plot-heavy no-holds-barred extracurricular S&M shoot-out in about two seconds. This actually happens. Please watch it. Please.

What? Your driving outfits don't look like this? Weird.

What? Your driving outfits don’t look like this? Weird.

Kill la Kill’s implicit goal was to turn the tropes of high school and battle anime on their heads. The protagonist is not a generic male audience surrogate, but a developed, interesting, self-reliant young woman, whose (albeit simplistic) motivations change throughout the series. This woman is dressed in a comically skimpy outfit, but her sexualization is done for explicit plot and character reasons, and her consent is a central element to the show’s development.

The reason I bring it up (apart from the previously mentioned fact that it’s AWESOME) is that another anime I really like from this season is rooted in the same kind of genre-bending style as Kill la Kill was: Shokugeki no Soma, or Food Wars.

shokugeki
Both are very similar in their competitive high school settings run by an elite corps of students, with one alpha female at the top who is disgusted with the overconfident red-haired protagonist. They also play up absurdity and fan-service. They operate in the same genres with the same general goal: twist the tropes to their breaking points. My question: which one does it better?

According to CrunchyRoll, here’s what Food Wars is about: “Shokugeki no Soma centers on Yukihira Soma, a middle school student who is determined to surpass his father’s culinary skills. One day, his father decides to close down their family restaurant and hone his skills in Europe. Before leaving he enrolls Soma in an elite culinary school that is extremely difficult to enter with a graduation rate of only 10 percent. Will Souma be able to improve his skills, or will the kitchen prove to be too hot?”

Straight forward enough. So here ya go, my thoughts on Food Wars, what I think it gets right, why I think I like it, and also why I think it comes up a little short.

(Note: the show is only up to episode 14 as of today, so my opinions may change by the time the series is finished. Cool? Cool.)

#1. First Episode

The first episode of any series should do a few things. It should 1) introduce the principal cast, 2) establish a setting and 3) develop the protagonist’s motivation(s). More generally, it should also set the tone for the series to come. Shokugeki no Soma’s first episode introduces Soma as a young kid about to start high school, working in his father’s diner. It gives us a clear protagonist and a supporting character. It gives us a setting in the diner. It also tells us the Soma is initially motivated by becoming a better chef than his father. Alright, sick. We did everything. Pilot’s done. It’s a wrap.

Except when Soma saves the restaurant from being closed and then his dad closes it for no reason to send him off to boarding school.

Wait.

Wait what.

There are questions that could have been hinted at here that just weren’t. Why is Soma trying so hard to become better than his dad? What’s their relationship like outside the diner? Where’s his mom? This was disappointing to me. Pair that with the no-warning setting change and the plot significance of the first episode felt a little wasted.

Tonally, the message is clear: this show is gonna be crazy. The graphic, clearly-orgasmic scenes of people’s bliss after they eat Soma’s cooking are hysterical and balls-to-the-wall fun (except when they get weird but I’ll get to that.) It was a great introduction to the kind of fun and delicious hilarity that the show does so well in later episodes.

I thought the first episode of Food Wars was super fun and engaging, but also just a little bit pointless. It felt like there was no progression. I felt like there was not a really strong foundation to build a world on. The setting, the only supporting character, and the only real conflict are thrown out in exchange for the high school, so the second episode has to establish setting, motivations and principal cast all over again. I can handle an early change of setting and I can understand motivating the plot the way they did, but it felt so sudden and sharp that there wasn’t any adjustment period. “Unpolished” is the word I would use. Ultimately, the first episode is a delightful romp that just… doesn’t accomplish a lot.

#2. Cast

Shokuegki’s cast is just too big, and too thin. It suffers from a case of “Star Wars Prequelitis,” by which I mean that, like the Star Wars prequels, it has a broad cast of one-dimensional characters that remain, as of episode 14, relatively untouched. There are so many side characters fighting for screen time that none of them end up with truly satisfying development. Even the key players like Soma, Megumi, and Erina, seem to be almost shoved to the side for the sake of squeezing in an extra scene with the dorm mates.

It’s not as if these characters don’t all fill a role. Marui is the nerd, Soma is the confident protagonist, Megumi is his nervous foil. Isshiki-senpai is the weird, homoerotic upperclassmen walking around mostly naked except for his pink apron. (Is that not a real trope? Because it should be.)

It totally should be.

It totally should be.

But if I’m being entirely honest, these are the only characters I can name off the top of my head. I can’t remember any of the alumni. I can’t remember half of the roommates. I could look their names up, but I honestly don’t really care enough about them to do so. Keep in mind: I last saw this show three days ago. That is not a good sign. These characters don’t need to be there if they aren’t going to either stand on their own, move the narrative forward, or somehow develop one of the central characters.

On the other hand, there are some characters that are totally interesting and multi-dimensional! Megumi, for one, is slowly coming to terms with her own shortcomings and starting to stand on her own. Soma is learning that he isn’t infallible and that he isn’t always going to be able to pull another trick out of his hat. Isshiki-senpai is, like I said, a half-naked man in a pink apron. This speaks for itself.

The rest of the cast is tragically underdeveloped, and it kinda makes me sad. I would love to see more of Nikumi and her backstory, and how she deals with falling out of favor with Erina. I would love to see a deeper characterization of Erina than “self-righteous preppy bitch.” The “rival” is thrown away by design, mocking the typical contrived “you-are-my-mortal-enemy-because-I-just-hate-you-go-die” way of setting up antagonists in some anime, but he’s still there, taking up screen space, and even got his own five minute backstory scene. The least they can do is not make him window dressing.

It was me! Fake-Dio!

It was me! Fake-Dio!”

#3. Boobles and Butts (and stuff)

I’ve been trying to avoid directly comparing Shokugeki with Kill la Kill for the last two points, but this one has to be done. The nudity, fanservice, and absurdist humor in both of these shows are done in very different ways and I think the differences are important. Earlier, I mentioned how KlK blends the mundane into the absurd. The day-to-day is sprinkled into a fundamentally absurd world (totalitarian high school with magic transforming space uniforms.) Well, I feel like, for Food Wars, it’s the opposite: the world is normal (a culinary school) and it’s sprinkled with the absurd (half-naked senpai and the Foodgasms.) This is good and bad.

The fanservice in both shows is graphic and in both it serves the plot. But in Kill la Kill, the nudity is real and visible and has to be in order for the main themes of consent and self-presentation to work. But in Food Wars the weirdly sexual-but-not-sexual stuff exists entirely in mental imagery. Mostly, it’s in the context of reactions to food. It is toned down after the first few episodes, but it’s still very graphic. I don’t have a problem with most of it: it’s fun and silly and pretty equal opportunity. It doesn’t objectify, and it’s too ridiculous to actually be arousing. Associating the pleasures of eating food with sex is nothing new, but Food Wars takes it up a notch without going too overboard. Most of the time it feels like harmless, over the top, self-aware fun at the expense of some genre conventions. Many of the reactions are not sexual and are actually pretty clever.
Inserted without context or comment.

Inserted without context or comment.

I guess I’ll just come out and say it: the tentacle shit is creepy and weird and a little unnecessary. To clarify: there are a few scenes where Soma makes girls eat squid tentacle grilled in peanut butter for laughs and their gross out reactions are depicted as surprisingly graphic scenes of tentacles grabbing them and touching them in a very “hentai” kind of way. I can understand the motivations. Going from the foodgasm to the really powerful gross-out uncomfortable taste test is a visceral way to communicate the different experiences of taste and also demonstrates the childish trickster element to Soma’s character. But the execution is a little much. Also, I think it, in a small way, trivializes the issue of consent and relegates nonconsensual sexual activity to the realm of an inconvenience. Something that leaves a bad taste in your mouth but isn’t something that really needs to be addressed. That’s not cool. That’s actually pretty terrible.

To their credit, it hasn’t been done again so far, probably as a result of the more general tone shift from “nuckin’ futs” to “a bit more subtly nuckin’ futs.” But this generally cavalier relationship that Shokugeki no Soma has with sex and nudity is contrasted with the way Kill la Kill handles it. KlK makes nudity and exposure central to the narrative and the character development. Ryuko dresses in a skimpy outfit that basically gives her superpowers, but at the cost of being ogled all the time. How Ryuko reacts when, for instance, she wakes up to a heavy breathing man (soon to be revealed as Mako’s dad) hovering over top of her speaks volumes to her character as a whole: she punches him in the face, calls him a pervert and then has a very confused Mako stand behind her with her squared up ready to fight.

Pictured: correct reaction.

Pictured: correct reaction

With consent and self-definition at the center of the story, Kill la Kill turns the vulnerability of nudity into a kind of strength. The resistance movement is called “Nudist Beach.” They are fighting the literal enslavement of humanity by clothes. The show engages with the very concept of fanservice by making Ryuko such a strong, self-determined character who has clear boundaries and is unafraid to defend them. Food Wars does not engage with these ideas. The foodgasms are just naked people going crazy. And that’s okay. That’s actually pretty hilarious. But what I think is not okay is the way that some of the inherent issues with depicting things like graphic tentacle groping in an otherwise light-hearted context are thrown away. Maybe I’m being a little harsh, but those two scenes do color my impressions of Food Wars in a very real way. Not enough to get me to go on a tirade over it, but enough to make me concerned about its direction moving forward.

At the end of the day, Food Wars is a great show with a lot to love about it. It’s pacing leaves a lot to be desired. It starts slow and uncertain, without clear direction as to where it’s going to go. It’s pacing is hectic: some things are taken fast as a bullet from a gun, others are sluggish as a continental shelf. Some aspects seem unnecessary, others feel just plain gross. I feel like it has a lot of untapped potential.

I would say that the first half of Food Wars is best seen as a series of wonderful moments, rather than a well-polished whole.

That should not be taken as “Don’t watch Food Wars.” Everyone should ABSOLUTELY watch it. I love it. It has… issues. Most things do. Even so, it doesn’t apologize for what it is and that’s something that I absolutely love. Food Wars is a show that defies explanation in a lot of ways. It’s not perfect but it stays fun and compelling. And who knows? Maybe all the problems I have with this series will be resolved before it ends. I would like nothing more. It would make a good show great.

It’s just plain fun. Watch it. Right now. I promise you’ll have a foodgasm or two.

I'm just... I'm just gonna leave this here.

I’m just… I’m just gonna leave this here.

More Animus:
The Weird is Okay: Lessons from Anime

More Smart Stuff:
Some Walls are Built for a Reason: Windows 10 and Steam Machines

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